Full of life and with a seemingly constant festival atmosphere, the medieval city centre of Galway is a place that demands to be visited. Today, the Galway is known as a cultural capital. However, originally it was merely a small fishing village located where the Corrib River met the bay. In 1232, with the Anglo Norman conquest it became a walled town. Some sections of the walls can still be seen today such as one of the icons of the city, the Spanish Arch. During the medieval period Galway’s strategic coastal location and natural harbour created a lucrative trade with Portugal and Spain. As a result, the city prospered until the 17th century. Such has been the significance of this period of trade that Galway is commonly known as the City of Tribes, in honour of the fourteen merchant families that effectively controlled the city. As you walk around Quay Street you will be infused with Galway’s colourful history and addictive character. Inevitably, you will end up wishing you could stay longer.
A brief history of Galway
Galway City is situated on the north-eastern shore of a sheltered bay on the west coast of Ireland. It is located at the mouth of the River Corrib, which separates the east and western sides of the county. This place has long been of strategic importance. After fierce resistance by the native Irish the Anglo-Normans were able to establish and eventually hold the then town of Galway. Nonetheless, its future was by no means secure. By the late thirteenth century Galway was very much a western outpost at the edge of Gaelic held territory. Frequent raids from the Irish meant that a town wall was essential to the settlement’s continued existence.
The town received its first murage grant in 1270 although the walls may have been under construction from around 1250. In the following centuries the defenses were continually renewed and improved after periods of decay. The walled city of Galway covers an area of almost eleven hectares, which makes it considerably smaller than many comparable Irish walled settlements of similar date and importance. However, unlike some of these towns, it was densely populated. Disastrous fires in 1412 and 1473 meant that the city was largely rebuilt at those times. The result has been to leave a unique legacy of stone buildings and carvings from the late-medieval period. It was also at the end of the 15th century, in 1484, that Galway was to receive its charter as a corporation. Within the walls, fourteen merchant families, today known as the Tribes, controlled trade and political life for most of the medieval period. Their power was only broken in 1652 when Galway was captured by Cromwellian forces at the end of the Confederate Catholic Rebellion.
In 1691 the city’s defences were once again put to the test. Galway had sided with James II in the Williamite War and during July of that year was besieged by William’s army. Despite being strengthened, the walls were unable to survive a sustained siege. Eventually, Galway was forced to surrender. The fortifications continued to be maintained in anticipation of a potential French invasion in the 1790s. However, the attack never came and the walls soon became redundant.
Although the removal of the walls in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along with extra-mural developments as the city expanded, have led to the alteration of the streets along the perimeter, the medieval street pattern has largely been preserved. The watercourses and harbour that once lapped the base of the walls have been slowly reshaped and land reclaimed. There are only five main stretches of wall remaining visible above ground. Other sections are partially incorporated into boundary walls of properties. Excavations commencing in the late 1980s have furthered our understanding of the archaeological heritage of the city, as well as making the walls more accessible to the public. The most well know section of city wall is the Spanish Arch, seen below. Built in 1584, it was designed to protect the quays. Its name may derive from a merchant trader from Spain whose ships often docked under its protection.
Today Galway is a successful commercial centre and a popular tourist destination due to its picturesque location, rich built heritage, as well as a vibrant cultural scene. The city has extended far beyond its medieval boundaries in all directions, however, the historic core and its immediate environs still retain their importance as the commercial, cultural and administrative hub of the entire region.
For further information on the city’s history contact:
Jim Higgins, Heritage Officer
Caroline Phelan, Planning Officer
If you want to read more about Galway, click on the PDF below: